Rights defenders and lawyers for Chechen human rights activist Oyub Titiyev, who is on trial for alleged possession of marijuana, have said his case is "a warning" to all journalists and human rights activists working in the North Caucasus.
Titiyev, the director of Russia's Memorial human rights center office in Chechnya, was detained on January 9, 2018, on drug possession charges.
Pyotr Zaikin, a lawyer for Titiyev, told a news conference organized in Moscow on March 6, less than a week before the court will hear the closing arguments in Tityiev's case, that his client was stopped and arrested just weeks after he traveled to Prague, where he presented a report on "secret prisons" in Chechnya at a human rights conference.
Such prisons, Zaikin said, are used by the Chechen authorities to illegally detain critics.
Zaikin said the officers who stopped Titiyev’s car were members of the local police's Rapid Reaction Group (GBR), the group that Zaikin said was involved in operating the "secret prisons."
Police say they found about 180 grams of marijuana in a plastic bag in Titiyev's car, a charge he and his supporters say is bogus and politically motivated.
Ilya Novikov, another lawyer for Titiyev, told the news conference that his client's case was based on falsified evidence and fraud.
Novikov said the only witness in the case, identified only as Baskhanov, had been convicted twice in the past on drugs-related charges and his testimony cannot be admissible in court. Baskhanov testified that he saw Titiyev smoking marijuana before he was arrested.
Memorial lawyer Tatyana Glushkova said the only "evidence" that links the plastic bag allegedly containing Titiyev's marijuana to her client is his hair “found” on adhesive tape attached to the bottom of the bag from outside.
"Oyub's fingerprints are neither on the bag nor on the adhesive tape," Glushkova said.
According to Glushkova, during one of his initial interrogations, officers put adhesive tape on Titiyev's head and warned him that they were going to beat him, but all of a sudden another police officer entered the room and stopped the questioning, reprimanding the interrogators, who then removed the tape from Titiyev’s head.
"That is how they obtained his hair to stick it on the tape to falsify the only piece of forensic evidence against Oyub," Glushkova said.
Rachel Denber, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, said at the press conference that Titiyev's case is "one of many cases of persecutions and attacks against human rights activists, journalists, and anyone who expresses thoughts that do not comply with the viewpoints of the Chechen authorities."
Oleg Orlov, one of Memorial's leader, said that Titiyev's arrest and trial is "part of a campaign against Memorial and other human rights organizations across the North Caucasus," adding that days after Titiyev's arrest a vehicle belonging to Memorial was set on fire in Daghestan; the group's office in Nazran, in neighboring Ingushetia, was targeted by an arson attack; and its office in the Chechen capital, Grozny, was searched by police several times.
Novikov said that there were many facts confirming that Titiyev’s case was personally orchestrated by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Activists say the 42-year-old Kadyrov, who is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and has led Chechnya since 2007, has committed serious human rights abuses, including the widespread use of kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
"At a meeting with police employees just days after Titiyev's arrest, Kadyrov called him a 'drug addict,' Novikov said, adding, "Is there any judge in today's Chechnya who will rule otherwise in Oyub’s case after that?"
Titiyev's defense team tried but failed to move the case to a court outside Chechnya.
Novikov also said that the closing arguments in the trial will be held on March 11 and the verdict is expected within weeks.
Western governments and international organizations have voiced concern about Titiyev's case and called for his release.